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Outgoing CEO Jason Kilar Reflects on Controversial HBO Max Decisions, Future of Streaming Industry

Lauren Forristal

On Tuesday, Jason Kilar announced he would be stepping down as CEO of WarnerMedia ahead of the mega-merger with Discovery. While his two-year run was brief, Kilar dramatically reshaped the company as chief executive, simplifying and modernizing WarnerMedia’s streaming and TV exec structure.

The former Hulu chief joined that streamer amidst its launch and did the same thing with HBO Max,making him perhaps the preeminent expert in turning fledgling streamers into successful services. This makes the departure even more unfortunate as he is leaving behind the launch of a third still in its infancy as he oversaw the debut of CNN+ just last month.

With the merger between WarnerMedia and cable giant Discovery set to become official next week, Discovery’s David Zaslav will take over as CEO; the new Warner Bros. Discovery executive team was announced on Thursday.

While Kilar hasn’t stated what his next steps are, he spoke with Vulture's Buffering newsletter about his accomplishments at WarnerMedia and where he sees the streaming business headed in the near future.

“I’ve long held a belief that generally speaking, there’s going to be a relatively short list of streaming services that are must-have,” he told Vulture’s Joe Adalian. “My hunch is there’s probably going to be three must-have general entertainment streaming services. And on this, I’m referring to the storytelling-centric companies. So WarnerMedia is clearly one with HBO Max, and then I put Disney and Netflix in that camp as well. I’m setting aside Apple and Amazon because they’re kind of different things — one supports a hardware strategy, the other supports a retail strategy.”

Kilar suspects that the biggest streaming services, with a wide variety of content for differing audiences, will be the ones to succeed. “I just think that we’re about to see, in the next 36 to 48 months, a fair bit of changes to the chessboard.”

The former CEO touches base on the need for bundling and the possibility of giant mergers continuing to reshape the streaming industry.

“What you don’t know is who acquires who, and then who’s the acquirer and who’s the acquiree. But I do think you’re going to see changes,” Kilar said. “I think some of those companies could become production entities, like Sony Pictures Entertainment is. Sony used to be a streamer. They had a service called Crackle that did not succeed and they made the decision to pivot and become a production house, to make movies and television shows and sell them to the highest bidder. Is it possible that Paramount Global could do the same? We’ll see. You could also see some sort of inorganic combination of other players.”

While the combined assets of WarnerMedia Discovery will make their eventually combined service exceptionally enticing to consumers, Kilar doesn’t see Warner Bros. Discovery needing to get involved in the mergers and acquisitions side of the streaming wars.

“It’s certainly not necessary to go and acquire other things,” he said. “I feel very strongly that the WarnerMedia that you see today has enough to be able to be a scale player.” The combination of content portfolios from HBO Max and discovery+ is enough to keep them in the running for a very long time.

A major accomplishment for Kilar was when he made the decision to stream the entirety of the 2021 Warner Bros. feature slate on HBO Max the same day those titles were released to theaters. While many people — from filmmakers to movie theater execs — derided the decision, Kilar stands by it.

“It was the right decision. It was the right decision, because we were in the middle of the pandemic,” he told Vulture. “Think about that right now — there was so much debate around the decision to help people enjoy movies in their homes in the middle of a pandemic where seven million people are dying, while at the same time making those same movies available in theaters with fully-funded marketing budgets. And we were the only studio doing that, by the way. We released 18 movies through a pandemic when all of our competitors either were selling their movies to streamers for streaming only, putting them in their back pocket, to hold until after the pandemic or in some cases following us and coming over the wall following us.”

While there were many concerns about loss of profit and compensation, angering many filmmakers, stars, and cinema owners, the decision paid off and boosted the streamer dramatically. In 2021, HBO Max released films such as “Godzilla vs. Kong,” “Mortal Kombat,” “The Suicide Squad,” and “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” right to the streaming platform, and as a result, added the most subscribers in Q1 2021 among all streaming services.

All in all, Kilar leaves a legacy behind him and a strong streaming structure that will be hard to crack.

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